Suicide Prevention & Speak-Up Culture

Today we have a reminder about the importance and value of a speak-up culture from a rather unlikely source: the new U.S. suicide prevention hotline, which is already receiving more calls than anyone expected.

The 988 hotline went live on July 16, replacing the longer, toll-free hotline number that people had used for decades prior. August was the new hotline’s first full month of operation, and on Friday the Department of Health & Human Services released a report about the 988 number’s performance — that the new hotline, formally known as the Lifeline program, saw far more calls, texts, and chats than the old hotline did in August 2021.

Specifically, the number of calls increased 52.7 percent from the year-earlier period. The number of chats on the Lifeline website nearly doubled, and the number of texts soared more than tenfold, from 3,400 in August 2021 to 39,000 last month. All interactions with the suicide prevention hotline in total (calls, chats, and texts altogether) jumped 45 percent compared to one year ago. 

Is that spike in calls alarming? Yes and no. Certainly we have a mental health crisis in the United States, and even one person contemplating suicide is too many. In that sense, rising numbers are bad. At the same time, however, more people calling the hotline means more people are seeking help for their suicidal thoughts. That’s good. As a society we should welcome more people asking for help rather than carrying such a burden alone. 

These numbers demonstrate a subtle but important point about speaking up that corporate compliance leaders should understand. All the time we’re asked whether an increase in the number of reports is a good thing or a bad thing — but that’s the wrong way to look at speaking up. The very question constrains us to binary answers: yes it’s good, or no it’s bad. 

The reality is that an increase in reports can be both good and bad at the same time. The number of reports reflects both the extent of the problem and your workforce’s interest in seeing the problem resolved. That’s an important principle to remember when building support for corporate internal hotline programs. 

Speaking Up Is a Good Thing

In the corporate world, higher rates of internal reporting correlate with better business performance. That phenomenon was first documented several years ago by Kyle Welch, business professor at George Washington University. He and his associates found that companies with higher rates of internal reporting also had lower rates of material lawsuits, fewer regulatory enforcement actions, fewer bad headlines in the business press, and even higher rates of corporate efficiency. 

Welch’s findings make sense when you think about them, because (as we noted above) more people speaking up doesn’t only mean your organization has lots of problems. It also means that your employees want to bring those problems to management’s attention so that the problems can get resolved. That is a great attitude for your workforce to have.

Still, executives do need to think about Welch’s research for a bit to reach that rather counter-intuitive conclusion. Many people — especially those in the First Line operating units, who might not be well-versed in corporate culture and organizational behavior — would instinctively assume “more hotline calls = more problems = bad.” 

That’s the wrong conclusion to draw. More hotline calls = more people willing to talk about problems = good. Compliance officers need to reinforce that message as often as possible. 

Yes, an endless deluge of hotline calls is challenging for an organization, but consider the converse: employees who just can’t be bothered to speak up about misconduct. Would any sensible executive think a culture like that is healthy? Would you want to work there? Of course not.

The real issue is whether the organization is prepared to address all those calls. Have senior leaders made responding to calls a priority? Have they given the responders enough manpower and resources? Have they spoken to the organization as a whole, emphasizing the importance of speaking up? 

Because if senior management hasn’t taken those steps, then the organization isn’t in position to respond to all those calls. That’s how you squander the effort employees are making, and then your corporate culture goes down the tubes.

A Word on Speak-Up Mechanics

We should also note the importance of the reporting mechanism, too. With the 988 number, the United States essentially implemented a more accessible hotline, easier for people to use; so now they’re using it more often. That shouldn’t be a surprise. 

I also like that the Lifeline program works across multiple channels, including text messages and online chatting. Whatever helps suicidal people to reach someone who can help them, that’s what we should do. 

The same principle holds true for corporate internal hotlines. We need to let employees lead on the methods of communication they prefer to use. That might be a challenge logistically, as you integrate multiple intake methods into a single whistleblower and case management program — but logistical challenges can be overcome. The benefit is that you get greater use of the reporting system, which gives you a better sense of the issues your organization has and how well you’re solving them.

That’s how organizations improve. It’s true of a nation grappling with a mental health crisis, and it’s true of corporations struggling with misconduct.

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